About Jake Miller

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Foundation Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

I will never forget the most tragic moment in one of my students’ lives. It was the first year I taught, and he was in my homeroom. Nobody expected him to be there that day. Why? Both his parents died in a car accident the day before.

And, then – there he was. The first kid walking into homeroom. Like it was any other day.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, surprised.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” he replied, “so I just wanted to act as normal as possible.”

“Well, you’re welcome to do whatever you want here, brother,” I said, as I approached him. “Today is your day.”

His response was almost knee-jerk speed: “Is it okay if I stay in your class for the day?”

“Not a problem at all,” I said. “Let me just call the office.”

I turned to the phone, but not before he could latch onto me. This 9th grader, a star on the football team, grabbed me like a running back and planted his face into my shirt and bawled.

I turned around and I hugged him.

In some schools, that could get me in trouble. Penalized. Fired.

Is that the type of student-teacher relationship we want to promote?

In some schools, that could get me in trouble. Penalized. Fired. Click To Tweet

I think the proper answer to this question – and the question posed in the article’s title – has plenty of complexities. But, just like any other major complexity we examine in education, I feel I have a few things to consider in permitting students and teachers to share an embrace.

  1. The student should initiate
    While sometimes I ask kids “do you need a hug?”,  I’ve never hugged a kid who hasn’t hugged me first.
  2. Think like a parent
    Now that I’m a parent, my son goes to a day care school. I want his teachers there to be able to give him hugs. When he trips and falls (which I’ve previously noted he does often), a hug is what resets him emotionally. If you don’t think we as adults don’t need that as well, you’re probably a hermit. That said, if my kid comes home everyday to say that a teacher hugs him, I’m going to inquire about it – not poignantly, just curiously.
  3. It’s situational
    An article from Ed Week quotes a supervisor from UC-Davis who says “when a kid comes up to hug you, you throw them a high-5.” I’m sorry, but if I threw the aforementioned student a high-5, I’d be the most insensitive teacher in a classroom that day. I’ve hugged kids when they’re down. I’ve hugged kids in congratulations. I’ve hugged kids when they thank me, or see me in the grocery store. That said, if a teacher greets a student with a hug in a room by themselves, that’s suspicious and malicious.
  4. It’s relational
    I’ve moved from 7th to 8th grade this year, so I have a nearly 50 of the same students. It’s not surprising that I’m pretty close with those kids; one of them – a young lady – came in about a week ago and said, “Mr. Miller, I’m just down in the dumps today… can I have a hug?” This child is like a little sister to me, and I probably talk with her parents every couple of weeks. In front of all the students, I used this as a teachable moment and said sometimes a hug is all we need. Simple as that.
  5. Do what makes the student feel comfortable
    The Atlantic Magazine featured a story from a teacher who moved to a school of at-risk and sexually abused children. He noted the double-edged sword he faced: some students have awful memories of being touched by adults in power, while there’s also the importance of showing the healing component of a hug.
  6. Do what makes you feel comfortable
    WeAreTeachers ran a grassroots article asking teachers what they thought was appropriate regarding hugs. The answers, as I’m sure you could ascertain, were as varied as our lesson plans are each day. Do not just what makes the students comfortable, but you as well. If a kid asks for hugs too often, you need to curtail that.
  7. Know that the double-standards are bountiful
    As a young man, it’s culturally awkward to hug the young ladies. An experienced female teacher would not be as questioned in that type of action, mostly because we don’t hear about them as child predators. Additionally, if a teacher is attractive, that might be disarming and cause more reasons for students to seek unnecessary hugs. That needs to be quashed immediately. There’s a huge fear of child predators in the classroom, and the fear is not unfounded.
  8. Think like the other student
    If kids assume that your hugging one of their peers is odd, you might need to stop for a second and ask yourself why that’s the perception. It might violate the comfort of the student, be too regular and scripted, be too much.

As teachers, it’s no secret that many of us refer to our students as “our kids.” Our heart is not just in our classroom, but in our classroom to serve our students. Sometimes we feel like a surrogate parent or older sibling to the student and providing proper care for them. Even, at times, with a hug. But these children are not our kids, and the balance between carefully respecting their and their parents’ boundaries is paramount.

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That said, sometimes a kid just needs a hug. And I’m not afraid to give them one.

Neither do I want my son to be afraid to hug the amazing teachers who will change his life. Someday they might need that hug more than he does.

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